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Jamiat slams “abusive and heavy-handed” police during arrest of congregants

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The Jamiatul Ulama in South Africa (JUSA) has expressed its disdain at the conduct of police officers who raided a place of worship and arrested 17 Muslim congregants at a prayer room in Pretoria West on Friday. In a video that has been widely circulated, members of SAPS shouted at the congregants for violating lockdown regulations. Several policemen are seen entering the prayer room in their boots and walking over the prayer mats. In the video, the congregants were ordered to lie on the floor and a young child can be seen amongst them. One officer can be heard making demeaning statements in reference to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

“Such images are distressing to Muslims who consider prayer places as sacred and entered upon only without shoes,” said the ulema body in a statement.

The 17 congregants were charged for being in direct violation of the COVID-19 Disaster Management Lockdown Regulations and released on bail on Saturday.

The video has sparked widespread criticism, with many commentators outraged by the police’s excessive and disrespectful behaviour.  JUSA said while it accepts the right of the officers to enforce the law, the “abusive and heavy-handed” nature of the police is “unacceptable”.

“The law is clear that offenders remain suspects, entitled to their dignity, until due process formally establishes their guilt. As such to abuse a symbol of the faith of an entire community on the basis of a violation of the law of few adherents, becomes an assault and freedom of belief and conscience, let alone an abuse of authority and powers,” said the theological body.

The ulama body has called on all Muslims to respect the regulations of the national lockdown.

“As we reiterate our call upon all Muslims to respect the regulations of the national lockdown in general and the restrictions it entails on congregations and religious gatherings, in particular, we would like to call upon the South African Human Rights Commission as well as the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to immediately investigate the conduct of the SAPS officers in this matter.”

Police Minister Bheki Cele has since apologised to the Muslim community for the “blasphemous”. National police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo has described the comments as “unfortunate and unacceptable.” Naidoo said SAPS management has directed that this matter be investigated and the person/s who made the comment about the Prophet (PBUH) be identified and brought to book.

Naidoo confirmed that there were two incidents of Muslim congregants being arrested for violating lockdown regulations.

“In the first incident, members of the SAPS Tactical Response Team (TRT) arrested 17 men on Friday, 24 April 2020 at approximately 13:00. This after the congregants converged in a building in Pretoria West in what appeared to be a religious gathering. All 17 suspects are still in police custody as we await confirmation on their nationalities from the Department of Home Affairs. They will be either be released on bail, issued with a fine, and or taken to court on Tuesday, 28 April 2020, depending on the outcome of the preliminary investigations,” he explained.

“In a second incident, 24 congregants were arrested yesterday, 25 April 2020 after they too formed part of what appeared to be a religious gathering in an area called Masibekela in the Mbuzini policing jurisdiction of Mpumalanga. Contrary to various reports, it was these arrests, and not Pretoria West, that were captured on video which went viral on social media platforms. In both incidents, the congregants are alleged to have contravened the Regulations of the Disaster Management Act.”

Naidoo reiterated government’s to call religious leaders to encourage congregants to respect the national lockdown regulations, in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Questions have arisen as to whether the congregational prayer is linked to a call by a Muslim attorney for people to continue to worship in congregation. On Thursday, a video clip went viral depicting attorney Zehir Omar encouraging “all Muslims…. to engage in worship in congregation”. Further on in the video, Omar offers free legal services to anyone who might get arrested for such contravention. Minister Cele has condemned this call, saying that it undermines the authority of the State.

Cele has subsequently condemned the call to mobilize the public to defy the laws of this country, adding that it “undermines the authority of the State.” He has called for an investigation into the attorney’s comments.

Cele said it was in this context that all citizens must be conscious of the primary purpose of the COVID-19 Disaster Management Lockdown Regulations, which is to protect South Africans from the coronavirus. Minister noted with concern that some arrests effected across most provinces over weekends since the lockdown are of people who had gathered for religious reasons when the only gathering permitted under the lockdown is a funeral service with a limit of 50 people in attendance.

“When people, wittingly or unwittingly, violate the lockdown regulations, police are left with no choice but to enforce the law where in some instances this means arresting people,” said Cele.

“This global pandemic demands that we all make huge sacrifices, making drastic adjustments to the way we live under normal circumstances. So, the sooner we accept that these are abnormal times, the closer we can all get to possible solutions towards eradicating the corona virus once and for all,” said the Minister, appealing to all of society to support government interventions and adhere to the regulations.

On Saturday, political parties have also weighed into the matter. The DA’s Andrew Whitfield, who serves on Parliament’s Police Portfolio Committee, said the behaviour of the police is appalling. Whitfield has asked Police Minister Bheki Cele to investigate the incident. On Twitter, EFF leader Julius Malema said there was “nothing wrong” with the polices behaviour as everyone must all comply with the lockdown regulations.


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